How Microsoft is putting accessibility first

Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer and VP for European Government Affairs on driving change from the inside. Learnings include:

Picture shows teams panel with Sumaira Latif from P&G (top-left) Casper Klynge (top-right) and Jenny Lay-Flurrie (bottom-centre)Accessibility “has never been more important,” said Jenny Lay Flurrie, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer.

Lay-Flurrie spoke at the first virtual TechShare Pro hosted via Microsoft Teams.

Covid-19 has forced many online, to the benefit of disabled users, argued Casper Klynge, Microsoft’s VP for European Government Affairs. “We have a young guy on our team with a hearing disability. He said he’d never had a better time than during Covid-19 because he could use the technology on Teams.”

“That kind of flexibility is something that we shouldn't just focus on during Covid-19, but we also need to focus on afterwards.”

Techplomacy: lessons from Europe

Klynge is recently appointed to Microsoft and hopes to draw on his previous experience as a tech ambassador for the Danish Government.

There, he coined the phrase “techplomacy” to describe the need to drive accessibility up the agenda by engaging with leaders across countries.

“We were trying to disrupt the traditional way of looking at how countries interact with each other and what it means to have envoys in, in the hotspots of transformation,” Klynge told P&G’s Accessibility Leader Sumaira Latif, who chaired the discussion.

He added, “Policy reigns supreme in a lot of these areas. A good starting point is to make sure that accessibility requirements are standard”. 

As an example, he pointed to the success of GDPR in driving change.

“There wasn’t a single technology company where we didn’t hear complaints about what Europe was doing and how awful it all was in terms of the regulations. Fast forward to today and there are very few companies that haven’t implemented GDPR as a universal approach for customers and consumers,” he told attendees. 

Raising the bar on accessibility

However, Lay-Flurries says there’s a risk in putting too much stock in policy alone.

“It sets the goal line at the least minimum bar. And I would never want that to be the goal because the policies are woefully behind the use of technology,” she said. 

Klynge agreed, saying we must learn the lessons of Covid-19 and deliver a sustainable accessibility plan. 

“Rome was not built in one day. We need to use the global pandemic as an opportunity to do more. That's a job that I and my team take quite seriously.”

Driving accessibility from the inside

To make accessibility sustainable, you need to change the way you work, says Lay-Flurrie. “After five years of pushing, this is an operations job; a role where you have to understand what the issues are, advocate and then problem solve for those to be addressed systematically. So, you're not fixing it every year. You're fixing it once.”

She added: “I want everyone to learn the basics of accessibility, what it is to be a person with a disability that the reliance and dependency we have on technology.” 

It also means embracing a diverse talent pool, she said: “If you have talent with disabilities at the core of the company that ecosystem just drives itself,” she said. 

“You've got people with disabilities, giving us feedback, and telling us when things are right, and when things are wrong. We really put a kick into hiring talent and amplifying talent and empowering talent with disabilities.”

Innovation: the benefits of an accessibility agenda

Peter Bosher, middle, an audio engineer who is blind who worked with the Project Tokyo team early in the design process, checks out the latest iteration of the system at Microsoft’s research lab in Cambridge, UK, with researchers Martin Grayson, left, and Cecily Morrison, right. Photo by Jonathan Banks.Focussing on disability has acted as a driver for innovation within Microsoft.

“Focusing on disabilities has a very nice spinoff effect from a commercial point of view, also valuable for a company like Microsoft,” said Lay Flurrie. 

“When I came into the role, we did a listening tour and people described it [accessibility] as a tax. History tells us that talking books and audible came out of books for the blind. Fluorescent lights came out of accessibility…it's the benefits of designing with through and for people with disabilities.”

Microsoft can point to examples including the Seeing AI app, and an adaptive controller for the Xbox. Lay-Flurrie also points to Microsoft's Project Tokyo a HoloLens, which enables blind people to find familiar faces in a room.

The bottom line, literally, is that accessibility makes good business sense. 

“It’s not just about the nerdery. I think it’s a lot more than just a piece of code. Microsoft looks across all of the different dimensions of the company …our hiring process, do we have physical accessibility at the bar that we want? Do we have internal accessibility as well as the different pieces of Word, Excel or X-Box?”